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Talking it out: Restoring information ecosystems through authentic human connections

For the past few months, we have been working on a research project aimed at contributing to stronger information ecosystems1 (systems of information creation exchange, flow and use), in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some of the themes we’ve been exploring in this project include the negative impacts of unbalanced flows of information for climate and environmental justice and the need for sustained creation and exchange of quality information, as well as inclusive narratives when it comes to climate and environment. 

As we learn from the incredible work being done by civil society in these regions, it has become clear to us, that though it may seem like the way to build stronger information ecosystems is to rely heavily on the promise of seamless technical fixes, the solutions we might actually need to support are focused much more on imperfect, inherently human processes. They are about recovering trust and fostering meaningful connections. By sharing some of the initiatives that have inspired us – not just because of the tech they use, but because of the ways they lead creative, community-driven initiatives – we’re inviting readers to look away from romanticised, hyped up tech solutions and explore with us the possibilities that exist beyond.

Gentle shore break
Gentle shore break | Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay

More than tech: restoring information ecosystems by recovering trust, fostering connections and strengthening local perspectives 

When addressing the many challenges related to information ecosystems, it is easy to get overly focused on looking for seamless, frictionless solutions that prioritise technical fixes. This is understandable: complex issues like information disorder, including mis- and disinformation, potential harm caused by generative AI, and increasing polarisation are intrinsically related to digital technologies and there are a lot of assumptions that we just need to find a “right” techno legal framework to “perfectly calibrate” things [ENG]. Although digital technologies have a big role in information ecosystems, there are many other societal forces that shape it, which call for more holistic and strategic interventions [ENG]. In other words, if we want to work to ensure quality and useful information is flowing in ways that are supportive of climate and environmental justice, tech cannot be our sole focus [ENG].

Our research acknowledges how information ecosystems have been “broken” for decades – which hasn’t happened exclusively because of digital technologies [ENG] – and recognises that fully restoring them to a balanced, thriving state will take a lot of work. With that said, motivated by the collective conversations we’ve been having for this project, we have written this article to  share some inspiring work that can help us identify pathways to restoring the information ecosystems and to propose a reflection of how perhaps we shouldn’t be fixating solely on tech. 

Our conversations with journalists, technologists, and activists have prompted us to consider how the core of their work isn’t constructed of seamless tech solutions. We’ve witnessed how many of their approaches working towards creating better ways of production, sharing and dissemination of information aren’t necessarily about using frictionless and perfect digital tech. From efforts to   produce quality, local journalism about climate, to projects that promote meaningful access to information about the environment, to initiatives using citizen generated data, to the development of alternative media platforms and comunicación popular that cover climate injustices: some of the most inspiring efforts to build stronger information ecosystems might be using tech in one way or another, but we’ve seen how their work is more than that. They are recovering trust, fostering meaningful connections, and strengthening local perspectives – processes that are inevitably imperfect and inherently human. 

Something that has consistently been on our minds during this research process is the power of local, community-driven initiatives that address people’s information needs, while also designing processes to generate meaningful connections, rebuild trust and help recover a sense of community. This includes the work of those who are restoring information ecosystems by effectively addressing the information needs of people in their communities, especially those who have been historically oppressed and marginalised, while creating spaces where people get to have meaningful conversations about the climate and the environment. 

Community storytelling through citizen generated data 

One of those initiatives is data_labe’s CocôZap [POR], which uses citizen-generated data to demand environmental justice in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. In a city where almost one million people live in areas at risk of flooding or landslides [POR], the climate emergency has made things worse, especially for people from low income, majority Black [POR] neighbourhoods. In Complexo de Favelas da Maré, where many have suffered from flooding and lack of sanitation [POR], data_labe [POR] has designed CocôZap: a tool for community members to report their experiences with water and sanitation using WhatsApp to send photos, videos, and stories. The data goes into a new database, designed to complement governmental data – which often overlooks the disproportionate ways environmental injustices impact people living in favelas. CocôZap’s team, made of young people from Maré, has convened with neighbours frequently and produced articles about environmental justice, fostering an ongoing conversation. CocôZap is simple and highly sophisticated [POR] at the same time: while setting up a WhatsApp account to gather input from people seems like a pretty straightforward task, building citizen data for/with a community is thorough work, which requires a deep understanding of complex community needs and a critical view of how insufficient (and, in some cases, biassed) “official data” from government sources can be. With CocôZap and other projects, data_labe has helped to shape the conversation about environmental and climate justice in Brazilian favelas.  

Another initiative in Brazil is using collective mapping tools to track flooding and expose environmental racism [POR]. During the rainy summer months, São Paulo’s authorities put in place mitigation strategies against the effects of floods and landslides [POR], basing their decisions on databases from the local government. In 2023, collective Quilombo Periférico [POR], represented by Councilwoman Elaine Mineiro, noticed that the official records didn’t include many of the floods that occurred in the city’s periphery [POR], an area with majority Black neighbourhoods. Since then, Mineiro has launched a collective mapping initiative [POR], through which citizens can report floods and landslides in their neighbourhoods. This initiative has helped to show how the deficiencies of “official data” produced by local authorities result in the design of insufficient policies to mitigate effects of climate emergency. Furthermore, the participatory nature of this work has demonstrated how crucial it is to take an intersectional approach to the climate emergency.

Journalism generating quality, local information on the environment  

In our research, our interviewees emphasised the need for more quality information to be produced about climate change and the environment. On a regional level, there still aren’t a lot of news stories about environmental justice, and even fewer about how it impacts marginalised populations. A study on the coverage of climate issues in Latin America shows that only 2% of news published by the press focus on environmental and climate issues [ES], while journalists believe they should be present in at least 30% of regional journalistic coverage [ENG]. While there is a need for greater news coverage, organisations are producing vital journalism that responds to and works in partnership with communities. One example of this is MalaYerba [ES], an independent media organisation covering socio environmental issues in Central America. Calling themselves “unwanted journalism” – because the type of work they do has long been silenced in the region – MalaYerba works to democratise access to information about the water crisis, food crisis and climate crisis, documenting the forced displacement of vulnerable populations as a result of the climate emergency and megaprojects. Despite operating in a context where press freedom is under threat [ENG], for MalaYerba “el periodismo nunca muere [ES]”, they’ve published eye-opening articles about the severe changes in bodies of water such as Lake Coatepeque [ES], the  effects of the climate crisis on the LGTBIQ+ population [ES], and the criminalization imposed on environmental rights defenders [ES]. 

Creating resources and news stories that democratise information flows—recognising that information does not move in a straight line from informer to audience—is crucial work for many organisations in the region. InfoAmazonia is an independent media outlet using maps, data, and geolocalised reports to tell stories about the Amazon. With the project Rede Cidadã InfoAmazônia [POR], they seek to strengthen journalism produced “about” and “from the Amazon,” supporting the exchange between the communication vehicles from different states in the Brazilian Amazon and the circulation of high-quality content. This work is especially important as the Amazonian region has some of the least developed information and communication (ICT) [ENG] infrastructure as well as being the region with the largest number of municipalities without any media outlets [POR] in Brazil. With their work, Rede Cidadã InfoAmazônia, provides a global overview of the issues being covered, while also highlighting local perspectives, valuing the experts and stories from the Amazon.

Fostering dialogues through participative journalism 

Mutante [ES] is a “digital movement for citizen conversation” also working in Latin America to democratise information flows. Practising what they call “participative journalism” [ES], Mutante calls on audiences to actively talk about their problems, building a public agenda collectively, using multi-channel digital communication. With a methodology that prioritises “weaving relationships and links with people,” they’ve promoted conversations to amplify the understanding of human mobility due to climate causes in Colombia [ES], exposed the inequalities behind energy poverty in Colombian islands [ES], and continue to create spaces for dialogue about the impacts of climate emergency [ES]. 

Fostering multidirectional conversations can take many shapes and forms. Colectivo Noís Radio [ES], creates live radio programmes integrating soundscapes with voice, music and performances. Based in Colombia, they don’t view themselves as a traditional radio, but rather see their work as a “medio de conversación” (or conversation medium) [ES] for fluid exchange of information. With their work, Noís Radio have supported digital self- and collective care [ES] for indigenous guards, cimarronas, campesinas, and land and environmental defenders through awareness workshops and “sound postcards.” Additionally, they have accompanied communities [ES] of social leaders, land and environmental defenders as well as indigenous, Afro-descendent, and campesinas with strategies that allow for the creation, dissemination, and preservation of knowledge, information and memory of these communities; as well as the defence of their territory and life. 

There’s a lot of polarisation [ENG] and distrust in institutions when it comes to the environment, and often the voices amplified in the media do not reflect those most impacted by climate change and land degradation. Agencia Baudó [ES], in Colombia, is challenging this, using innovative communication tools to do “journalism that connects communities,” covering environmental and climate issues, peace and conflict, gender and inclusion. Agencia Baudó works with storytellers that are not only providers of information, but rather local leaders working in their communities for social transformation. One of their projects, “Los Rastros del Cambio Climático”[ES] presents audiovisual representation of how the climate emergency takes shape in Latin America, with photos, videos and audio bringing the voices of the indigenous people – for example the people living near the Quelccaya ice cap in Perú, the fisherman living through unprecedented drought and devastation in Pantanal in Brazil, the people affected by extreme pollution at the Quintero-Puchuncaví bay in Chile, and the islanders affected by changes in ecosystem at Rosario Islands, in Colombia. Sharing stories about those most impacted by the climate crisis from a diversity of backgrounds, Agencia Baudó is doing the essential work of building trust and bridging communities. 

An invitation to think beyond tech 

As we make our way through this research project, one thing is clear. Although tech is definitely an important part of how we create better information ecosystems, it’s not the whole story. The examples we shared above (and many others we’ve learned about during our research) exemplify how we will need more than tech. To us, what makes these initiatives brilliant isn’t just the tech they use, but rather how they’re working to ensure people have information they need, creating conversations about climate and environmental justice with their communities, and exposing environmental and climate injustices. Gathering these examples is our way of inviting readers to look beyond solutions that are exclusively focused on tech and instead explore how we can be doing more to support the work of those who are strengthening information ecosystems like they are: messy, complex, human.

We’d like to thank Cristina Veléz Vieira, who has been working with us as a researcher in the project that inspired this piece, as well as the organisers who kindly engaged with this research and who are leading fantastic work all over Latin America and the Caribbean.

Bárbara Paes has over a decade of experience working with civil society organisations, most often on issues related to social justice, power and technology. Currently, she leads The Engine Room’s work in Latin America, which includes a project focused on building stronger information ecosystems in the region. Previously, she has worked defending the right to information in Brazil and co-founded a feminist organisation dedicated to creating spaces for Black brazilian girls and women to learn about technology through anti-racist perspectives. Bárbara holds a masters degree in Gender and Development from the University of Sussex.

Olivia Johnson is a Research Associate at The Engine Room where she designs and conducts research projects at the intersection of technology and social justice. She is particularly interested in issues relating to surveillance, data privacy and the impact of technology on people’s lives. Currently, she is a researcher on a project working to build stronger information ecosystems in Latin America and the Caribbean. She holds a masters degree in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford.


  1. We’re using the term “information ecosystems” throughout this piece to refer to the systems of information creation, exchange, flow, and use. By taking an ecosystems approach, we’re hoping to convey the complex ways in which information is produced, shared and disseminated, highlighting the interconnectedness of the different elements and actors that coexist in this ecosystem and encouraging a more holistic analysis of the challenges we’re facing when it comes to information. For those interested in further reading on information ecosystems, we recommend Courtney C. Radsch’s work on healthy information ecosystems as a good starting place. And for those interested in learning more about how we, at The Engine Room, are thinking about the information ecosystems, we’ve been sharing our reflections on our blog. ↩︎